So you’re trying to have a serious conversation with your spouse, but it doesn’t seem to be working. They aren’t answering the questions you ask. Instead, they seem to be ignoring you or shutting you out. And that just gets you even more upset. Don’t they care?
It’s easy to take these situations personally, to assume that these actions are deliberate. But what if it wasn’t? When you conflict with your spouse, something interesting happens inside of both of you that inhibits your ability to hear or even to remember what is said.
What’s Happening on the Inside?
To properly understand what is going on when your spouse appears to be shutting down or shutting you out during marital conflict, you need a quick primer on the nervous system.
Your central nervous system (CNS) is a collection of nerves and cells that connects your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body, allowing signals and messages to be transmitted back and forth. Always on, it enables you to control your bodily functions, most of which are subconscious.
By not having to concentrate on things like your heartbeat or digestion, this frees you up to focus on higher level tasks. You can work, exercise, watch movies, or talk with others. Since the CNS handles the plethora of unconscious tasks in your body, you can focus on the conscious challenges.
When Stress Happens
In the event of a stressful situation, the CNS responds, affecting you on both conscious and subconscious levels. Based on the severity of the threat, it begins to override every other priority that you have at the moment. This strong response is designed to protect you from potential danger. If you encountered a wolf as you walked in the local park, your CNS response would allow you to quickly stop worrying about what’s for dinner and instead focus on not becoming dinner.
These responses can range from moderate to extreme, depending on the situation. Extreme responses are usually given for extreme situations when you are in clear, imminent danger. In these cases, your CNS might shut down enough body functions that you flee, collapse, faint, or dissociate from the experience.
Our primal desire to stay alive is more important to our body than even our ability to think about staying alive [or to think about much else, for that matter].
While marital conflict does not typically trigger this extreme reaction, it still is common for conflict to trigger a notable CNS response. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel that your spouse is a threat to you. However, if they are upset with you, then your safety in your marriage is at risk. Because safety is at risk, your CNS triggers alarm bells to try to protect that safety.
When you have a serious conflict with the most important person in your life, your body registers this as a significant emergency. It activates all of the fight or flight tools for survival like increased heart rate, respiration, and cortisol. And worse yet, it decreases your ability to reason, ironically making it more challenging to deal with the conflict at hand.
What Really Happens When You Fight
Another issue with this response is that it is most concerned with self-preservation. When you are fighting with your spouse, you need to focus on preserving your marriage, not yourself. Please note that this is about typical marital conflicts, not situations of spousal abuse when you do need to be focusing on self-preservation.
When your nervous system is activated, your thought patterns do not run the same way they do when you are calm. Your CNS response makes it more challenging to be open and engaged, making it more difficult to exchange information and affection. It affects nearly every single organ in your body.
Your body starts to release hormones like adrenaline. Your mind becomes hyper-aware of your environment. Your heart begins to race, and you might even start to sweat. Your fight or flight system activates, pushing you to be aggressive and defensive towards your spouse (fight) or else pushing you to walk away or shut out the threat (flight).
If you can stay in a calm state, you will more emotionally open, more facially expressive, and better at listening to and understanding each other. These all are essential tools to connect and solve problems together. And if you both are calm, you help each other by showing affection and affirming the safety and security of your marriage.
However, your own CNS tends to fight this, acting directly against the tools you need to tackle the situation together.
Interestingly, your body reduces your ability to listen while under stress. Your CNS filters out the range of sound in which human voices fall. It does this to heighten your ability to detect threats you would expect in a survival scenario. Your nervous system forces you to focus on strange or unusual sounds like a twig snapping in the forest or shoe scraping on cement.
Your nervous system is trying to help you survive, but in a marital conflict, it ends up inhibiting your ability to hear each other. It doesn’t mean that either of you wants to stop listening, only that your bodies are making it more challenging to do so.
In these situations, your body even compromises your ability to reason well. Sometimes when you or your spouse are in an argument, one of you might say something out of character. You might jump to ridiculous or extreme conclusions, reacting with irrational fears that don’t make sense when you are in a calmer state.
Again, your nervous system is trying to help you survive. Heightened emotional responses and logical leaps are meant to help you get out of harm’s way, but in the context of marital conflict, they only make the situation worse.
Affecting more than just reasoning, your CNS also has been found to respond to stress by affecting your ability to create narrative memory. After an argument, you or your spouse might only remember bits and pieces. You might have a difficult time tracing back the course of the argument or understanding why you were fighting in the first place.
This is why it is so crucial to be able to learn how to return to a state of calm. You will not only be better able to deal with the conflict in the present, but you will also remember and learn more from the experience in the future.
A vital tool to remaining or becoming calm during marital conflict is mindfulness. By being aware of your thoughts and your body, you help yourself to engage with your spouse calmly. We’ve put together a guide for our supporters on Patreon that will teach you about mindfulness and how to use it in conflict as well as everyday situations.
Calming Your Central Nervous System in Conflict
It’s important to reiterate that the very reason why your survival mechanisms kick in during marital conflict is that they are incredibly important to you. Even though your CNS may not actually be helping you, it is responding because you instinctively know that your marriage is in danger. So what is the best way to manage this response?
Researchers have found that the best way to adapt to stressful circumstances is through the practice of emotional regulation. By doing things that reduce your vulnerability to unwanted feelings, you prepare yourself for stressful situations.
This will help to reverse the effect that your nervous system has on your body, allowing you to return to a calmer mindset. And this, in turn, will allow you to be more aware and present, better equipped to deal with the situation at hand.
Calm Your Body
Again, the relationship the CNS has with the body works both ways. While stress can trigger your CNS to tell your body to behave in certain ways, certain behaviors can signal to your CNS that you are no longer in danger. In this way, you communicate through your body to your nervous system that the stress response is no longer necessary.
A stress response will typically cause you to accelerate your breathing involuntarily. Researchers have found that when people who have post-traumatic stress disorder breathe mindfully and meditate, they can reduce their stress and anxiety levels. While not everyone has PTSD, the principle remains the same.
When you are in a stressful situation, such as arguing with your spouse, start by breathing slowly and deeply. By consciously controlling your breathing, you are telling your CNS that it can calm down.
Your nervous system’s response to stress involves pushing you to escape or fight your way to a safer place. So if you can picture yourself in a peaceful place, you can “hack” your CNS, signaling to it that you’re no longer in the dangerous situation anymore. So perhaps revisit a favorite childhood memory, or visualize sunbathing at the beach. Just try to think of a specific time and place that will help you calm down, and your body will begin to relax.
Of course, you need to tell with your spouse what you are doing. Otherwise, they may think that you are just checking out, or that you don’t consider this issue to be important enough to focus on. Let them know that you are taking a moment to calm down your body because you believe that the discussion is important enough to require your full attention.
Because your CNS has locked down so many processes, you need to reestablish your connection with your body. As a result, it is common to hear of people going for a walk to clear their heads. And while a marital conflict is not always the best time to go for a walk, at the same time slow and mindful movements can help you reconnect your body with your mind. Again, just be sure to tell your spouse you’re doing this so you can reconnect — not so that you can disconnect.
Calm Your Mind
Physical activities are not the only method to push back on your nervous system’s stress response. There are several psychological techniques that will enable you to diffuse a high-stress situation with your spouse.
Researchers know that the way you perceive the nature of the source of stress affects how you will react to it. People often can view stressful situations as challenges or threats. If you see the situation as a threat, you start to shut down your intellectual and physical capacity to deal with it.
If, on the other hand, you view the situation as a challenge (rather than a threat), you will have more mental resources at your disposal, helping you cope and rise to the occasion. Challenges do not activate your nervous system as much as threats do. So viewing conflict as a challenge (not in the sense of something to win, but something to collaboratively solve) will tell your body to engage and lean into instead of running away or defending.
Because this helps you better deal with the situation, always pay attention to how you are framing the issue. And let your spouse know as well. By showing them that this is a problem with a solution and not a dangerous threat, you help each of you calm down and more rationally approach the situation together.
Give Positive Feedback
Of course, this is easier said than done. When you are under stress, it can be tough to bring good things about your spouse to mind. But according to research, positive feedback helps during difficult times.
Even if your spouse is saying hurtful things, don’t forget all the good things they have done. Take note of the good that you can see (or recall) at that moment and affirm them. Appreciate their calmness, their observations, or the fact that they care enough about your relationship to fight for it. Find the common ground. By doing this, you remind one another of the fundamental truth that often gets overlooked in conflict: you are working together for the same goals.
You may have difficulties or differences right now, but ultimately, you are on the same team. And giving positive feedback will remind both of you that the other is not your enemy, leading you to calmer and more stable states of mind.
By calming both your body and your mind, you can push back on your nervous system’s automatic response to stress. You will be better able to engage with the problem, allowing you to find the solution together.
Remember that if your spouse is shutting down or even lashing out, they are doing this because of how important you are to them. If you did not matter, their CNS would not be activating like this. They react in this manner because they are just so desperately afraid to lose you that every fiber of their being is straining and being strained to bring everything they value back to a place of safety.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always pretty. Their nervous system is making it more difficult to hear, to understand, to reason, or even to remember. So help each other out by giving yourselves a little room to calm down. Take a step back, breathe, calm yourselves, and then start to work on the problem together.
 Puder, David. “Emotional Shutdown—Understanding Polyvagal Theory.” Professional. Psychiatry Podcast, July 9, 2018. https://psychiatrypodcast.com/psychiatry-psychotherapy-podcast/polyvagal-theory-understanding-emotional-shutdown
 Kassam, K, K Koslov, and W Mendes. “Decisions Under Distress: Stress Profiles Influence Anchoring and Adjustment.” Psychological Science 20, no. 11 (2009): 1394–99.
 Puder, “Emotional Shutdown—Understanding Polyvagal Theory.”
 El-Sheikh, M, J Harger, and S Whitson. “Exposure to Interparental Conflict and Children’s Adjustment and Physical Health: The Moderating Role of Vagal Tone.” Child Development 72, no. 6 (2001): 1617–36.
 Puder, “Emotional Shutdown—Understanding Polyvagal Theory.”
 Kassam, Koslov, and Mendes, “Decisions Under Distress: Stress Profiles Influence Anchoring and Adjustment.”
 Kassam, Koslov, and Mendes.
 Kassam, Koslov, and Mendes.
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